A comparison of interactive multimedia and face-to-face education in museums

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Presented at the Seventh International Conference of the Museum Documentation Association, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1995.


Beyond the provision of (extended) labels and didactic panels, on-site educational services to museum visitors is traditionally delivered face-to-face. This paper compares the effectiveness of interactive multimedia with various forms of face-to-face museum education, in terms of:

  • social interaction
  • physicality
  • directness
  • open-endedness, and
  • cost

Some suggestions are made for interactive multimedia, as a result of these comparisons.


There are different types of face-to-face education methods (FFE) just as there are different types of interactive multimedia systems (IM). FFE in a museum consists mainly of gallery talks and performances, with or without a hands-on (workshop) component, and slide lectures. Museum-based IM systems are either on-site or off-site or a combination of the two (1). On-site systems typically consist of free-standing computers with touch-screens near the exhibits to which they relate. Off-site systems (accessed in schools, libraries and homes) mostly consist of CD-ROM software and on-line information systems, such as World Wide Web sites. Because off-site IM is more like accessing information privately in a library than a gallery talk, performance or lecture, I shall restrict my discussion of IM (for the purposes of comparison with FFE) to on-site systems only.

Social Interaction versus Isolation

IM is a solitary experience, because generally only one user can interact with it at a time. Any other people present are at best interested observers or at worst other potential users waiting impatiently for 'their turn' (which could be called the 'queue factor'). FFE on the other hand is a social experience, particularly in small groups in gallery talks. Even when only one person is speaking (whether it be the presenter or one of the visitors) it can be said that the group as a whole is participating in the experience.


IM is mostly non-physical: Users participate by touching a screen, rolling a track-ball, moving a joy-stick or pressing buttons, and get feedback by looking at images on a screen and occasionally listening to sounds. Physical movement on the part of the user is restricted to a series of finger and wrist movements and physical movement on the part of the system is nil. A gallery talk (FFE) is physical at least to the extent that participants usually walk from exhibit to exhibit, but there is also a potential, missing in IM (2), for the presenter and/or visitors to use their bodies to express and explore ideas and feelings. Examples of this approach would be two recent interactive performances at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Just Jack the Garbage Man and Doctor Dada's Time Machine, both performed by myself. In Just Jack, I assumed the character of a garbage collector whose calling in life is to arrange (clean) garbage on the floor of the Art Gallery so that the 'authorities' (i.e. director, curators and cleaners!) would treat it as a work of art rather than garbage. To achieve this, the styles of various paintings and sculptures nearby were studied and copied. The audience was invited to help and by so doing, learnt first-hand some of the principles of composition. In Doctor Dada, I became a scientist who allowed visitors imaginatively to travel back in time to the studios of famous artists. In one part of the performance, one member of the audience, acting as a nineteenth century academic painter, and another, acting as an Impressionist, would argue about what makes 'good art'. Some of the participants became quite impassioned!

Another important side of FFE, too often missing in museum education programmes, is the hands-on workshop. Here the visitor's physical participation is an integral part of the educational experience. This may be possible even in a museum such as an art gallery, where the exhibits are too fragile to be touched. In this case, activities can be designed that enable the visitor to relive the creative process itself. An example of this approach, again from The Art Gallery of New South Wales, was the educational exhibition Taking Photographs, Making Photographs. In one corner of the exhibition space, a mock-studio was set up with a multi-level stage, theatrical lights, large sheets of coloured cloth, make-up tables (complete with make-up), mirrors and a video camera attached to a special 'freeze-frame' machine lent to the Art Gallery by Polaroid Australia. Each group was divided into actors, lighting crew, make-up artists and a camera-operator. After make up, the actors created tableaux on the stage as the camera operator experimented with various compositions. The camera's view appeared on a large television monitor so that all participants could see it. At various moments (decided collectively) a button would be pressed which froze the image on the screen. The group as a whole, including the actors, would then experiment with variables such as colour saturation, contrast, brightness and sharpness using sliding controls. Pressing another button produced Polaroid photographs of the images which were then displayed on a large pin-board. (Some photographs were also be kept by the group.) This activity, which was enjoyed immensely by all who took part, was very effective in demonstrating that photographers, as artists, are constantly making decisions about their images and that a photograph is as much 'made' as it is 'taken'.

For further examples and discussion and examples of participatory museum education, see Sternberg, 1989.

Another aspect of the non-physical nature of IM is that images presented are only surrogates. That is, IM gives a mediated, rather than a direct, experience (3). As a result, the user can easily be distracted by the medium itself, as the next point elaborates.

Directness versus Distraction
IM creates an extra, distracting layer between the visitor/user and the museum experience. (Howze, 1989), p.209. On the one hand, users may be dismayed by the requirement that they first must learn the rules of the interface (as 'intuitive' as they may seem to us as museum professionals or developers). On the other hand, the technology of the system and interface can sometimes take over. This could be called the 'button-pressing factor' - The screen can be so inviting and every button-press so rewarding that the user presses every possible button 'just to see what happens'. This can cause the user to monopolise the system even longer, reinforcing the 'queue factor' described above. Many such on-site systems would clearly be more suitable as off-site or semi-off-site systems.

Clearly, it is also possible in FFE for the presenter or presentation style to be distracting, to draw attention away from the exhibits, but at least the experience of interacting with another human being feels natural to most people, because there are very little, if any, new skills to be learnt.


Most IM is 'open ended' in a very limited sense only, in that the user is presented with a series of distinct choices. This is a product of the point-and-click interface (assuming no keyboard or voice recognition) as well as the 'if-then-else' program structure itself. 'Reality' (FFE in this case) is much richer and more complex than this.

However, IM may be more effective than FFE when visitors have specific questions to ask. If the IM system were attached to a large, encyclopaedic database, there would be a better chance that it could answer a question such as 'What kind of paper did the artist paint on?' than a guide or museum educator.


Because a reasonably powerful computer hardware system would be cheaper per year, even allowing for capital cost and depreciation, than a typical professional salary, it may be thought that IM would at least be a more cost-effective way to deliver educational services in a museum than having a number of educators giving talks from opening to closing time every day. However, dividing the cost per day of each method by the number of visitor contact hours per day makes FFE and IM in fact comparable in cost-effectiveness (See Table A). It can be seen that the cost-effectiveness of IM improves slightly as extra units are added (because of shared software costs) and obviously the cost-effectiveness of FFE would improve dramatically for slide lectures (because of larger group sizes) although the level of personal interaction would decrease correspondingly.

Table A

 FFE (gallery talks)



1 unit

3 units~






Costs breakdown:

Annual salary


Hardware capital cost

10 000.00

30 000.00


Weekly salary


Software capital cost

10 000.00

10 000.00


Total weekly capital cost ^




materials cost pa


maintenance (5 hrs/wk/unit):


materials cost/wk


labour cost/hr




labour cost/wk




materials cost pa




materials cost/wk




Weekly cost:






Max vch*/week






Avg vch*/week







Min weekly cost/vch*






Avg weekly cost/vch*






[* vch: Visitor Contact Hours   ~: All units running identical software   ^: Assuming life of 5 years]



The complexity of much existing on-site IM would suggest that a context similar to the National Gallery's Micro Gallery might be more appropriate - that is, within the building, but separate enough and with enough identical units to make serious, methodical exploration practical for the visitor. However, if for some reason the IM system needs to be within or near the exhibition space and/or it is impractical to have a number of identical units, the following suggestions may be useful:

In an on-site system, the number of choices should be reduced rather than increased, to minimise the sense of 'boundlessness' that many users experience (4). Also, the interface needs to be made so straightforward that it is almost transparent to the user.

Some visitors may want to explore further than others, using on-site IM. However, as we have already seen, this has the effect of keeping them away from the actual exhibits and keeping other visitors from using the IM system. One possibility would be to keep track of interested visitors using a bar-code system or something similar: Let us imagine for example that David Bearman is visiting an art gallery. He notices an IM station in an exhibition of Australian landscapes, so (naturally!) he walks over. Next to it is a stack of cards, each with a different barcode, and a sign which says, "Please take one". On the screen he reads: "Swipe your card across the scanner to begin". He swipes his card and the screen changes to reveal a simplified keyboard where he is invited to enter his name. He does so and after a personalised welcome, it proceeds like any good IM system for about a minute until suddenly it asks him a question that can only be answered by going and looking at the exhibition (perhaps one particular painting). He leaves the station to do his 'research' and returns a minute or so later to find a woman using it. Fortunately, it is not long before she too is asked a question that requires her to go into the exhibition. David again swipes his card over the scanner and the screen says "Welcome back David. Well, were you able to answer the question? ..." (and so on).

Another possibility is 'distributed' IM, such as Acoustiguide's INFORM system (used at the Tate Gallery, London). Briefly, this is a non-linear version of the familiar tape-based audio-tour, using a device that resembles a cellular phone. A visitors keys a number corresponding to an exhibit and then hears a short commentary on it. Occasionally, other choices are presented (e.g. "If you wish to hear the artist's own words about this work, press 1; if you wish to hear the critic's comments, press 2"). The advantages of this system are that it uses the real exhibits rather than representations of them and, because the visitor carries the unit around, it may be as close to FFE (specifically a gallery talk) as current technology will allow. The disadvantages are cost (as a result, it mostly appeals to tourists and visitors to 'blockbuster' exhibitions) and the inability to use related images, videos and animations.


Despite the sexiness of IM technology, high quality FFE should still be seen as an essential educational delivery method for museums. It can be as eye-opening, innovative and responsive as IM (in some cases more), with the added advantages of social interaction, physicality and directness. However, as long as IM is made appropriate to its context, there is certainly room for the two methods to complement each other.



1. A example of a combination on-site/off-site system is the Micro Gallery in the National Gallery, London.

2. A notable exception to this is Myron Kruger's Full-Body Interactive Exhibits (Kruger, 1991)

3. The only time that this is not true in an art museum is when the interactive multimedia is the art work.

4. Alternatively, if research into the related technologies of fuzzy logic and artificial intelligence were to be applied to IM as well as to expert systems, perhaps IM systems could be developed which used natural language and where the sense of a limited number of discreet choices was eliminated.




Howze, William (1989) 'What Every Art Museum Educator Should Know about Audio Tours, Slide Shows and Video Programs and a Few Words about the Use of Computers at the Moment'. In Museum Education: History, Theory and Practice. The National Art Education Association: Reston VA, USA. 154-171.

Kruger, Myron W. (1991) 'Full-Body Interactive Exhibits'. In Hypermedia and Interactivity in Museums. Archives and Museums Informatics: Pittsburgh PA, USA. 222-243.

Sternberg, Susan (1989) 'The Art of Participation'. In Museum Education: History, Theory and Practice. The National Art Education Association: Reston VA, USA. 154-171.